The Frabjous Delights of Seriously Silly Poetry

Via the Passive Voice Blog, this from the Wall Street Journal: The Frabjous Delights of Seriously Silly Poetry

I’m linking to The Passive Voice because the WSJ as a paywall.

Side question: do you ever subscribe, with real money, to any publication that has a paywall in order to read their articles? Someone must, right? Because otherwise nothing would have a paywall. But to me it seems like there are plenty of other things to read.


Today, when public language can seem slippery or unreliable, we might, for pleasure as well as reassurance, check in with the masters of English poetry. They may sometimes use gibberish, gobbledygook or balderdash for fun but, in the end, they leave us delighted rather than confused. Some kinds of nonsense are consoling….

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

On its face, this may seem like nonsense, and in fact Alice herself has problems with it: “It’s very pretty, but it’s rather hard to understand.” She’s wrong. It may distort sense, but it is not nonsense. If you know English syntax and parts of speech, you know immediately that “toves” and “wabe,” like “borogroves” and “raths,” are nouns, even if you have no idea what else they are. “Gyre” and “gimble” are verbs, “mimsy” and “mome” adjectives. “Brillig” and “outgrabe” are ambiguous. In poetry, all words are important, and the odder they are, the more provocative.

I’ve always had a soft spot for The Jabberwocky. Don’t we all? The Passive Guy adds:

In poems, sounds gather meaning through suggestion. (This is why rhyme is important.) “Wabe” sounds like “wave,” and “Callooh! Callay!” isn’t far from “Hip-Hip, Hooray!” Some of the words are original portmanteau coinages. “Frabjous” combines “joyous” and a hint of “fabulous.” “Mimsy,” according to Humpty, is “flimsy” and “miserable.” No wonder everyone loves “Jabberwocky”: it turns readers into etymologists. They can make their own definitions.

Which is all true, though obviously it all happens below the level of conscious thought.

What other nonsense poetry do you like?

Here’s one of my picks, by Mervyn Peake. I like the first verse best — it’s going to be stuck in my head for hours after reading it again just now. This verse is the one I remembered, but the whole thing was easy to find online, so here’s the complete poem:


I cannot give the reasons,
I only sing the tunes:
the sadness of the seasons
the madness of the moons.

I cannot be didactic
or lucid, but I can
be quite obscure and practic-
ally marzipan

In gorgery and gushness
and all that’s squishified.
My voice has all the lushness
of what I can’t abide

And yet it has a beauty
most proud and terrible
denied to those whose duty
is to be cerebral.

Among the antlered mountains
I make my viscous way
and watch the sepia mountains
throw up their lime-green spray.


Speaking of getting stuck in my head, this topic reminds me of a particular filksong by Vixy and Tony, on a CD I lost by putting it in, apparently, a random jewel case somewhere amid the vast number of CDs I have on a rack in the other room.

Eventually I need to find that sucker so I can listen to this song again. The lyrics are not nonsense. They are a series of wonderful analogies. If you aren’t familiar with Vixy and Tony, here a link.

And here’s the song —

And My Love Was Like the Moon

And my love was like the moon
When my world was dark he lit the starless skies
And my hopes for what I’d be
While his faith still lived in me
Shone reflected in his eyes

And my love was like the moon
And the phases of his mood would wax and wane
And he had his darker side
And he chose what he would hide
And concealed his deepest pain

He was like the speed of light
Always sure when he was right
And I knew he’d never change
He was like the value pi
Though predictions I might try
Still his code was always strange

And my love was like the sun
And he always kept me warm when day was through
Burning with his fusion’s fire,
Blending passion with desire,
Making one soul out of two

And my love was like the sun
Though he’s gone his blazing image fills my sight
Dazzled still, and left behind
I am groping as though blind
And can scarce tell dark from light

Like a pitch too high to hear
He enhanced what he was near
Everything seemed sharp and bright
Like the golden section, phi,
His proportions could not lie,
every part of him was right

And my love was like the sea
I was rocked to peaceful sleep upon his waves
And he brought before my eyes,
As a diver brings his prize,
many gifts my heart still craves

And my love was like the sea
And his depths held secrets I could never know
Needs unfathomably deep
Longings that I could not keep
And I had to let him go

And my love was like the moon
And my love was like the moon…

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8 thoughts on “The Frabjous Delights of Seriously Silly Poetry”

  1. The Mad Gardener’s Song!

    He thought he saw an Elephant,
    That practised on a fife:
    He looked again, and found it was
    A letter from his wife.
    “At length I realise,” he said,
    “The bitterness of Life!”

    He thought he saw a Buffalo
    Upon the chimney-piece:
    He looked again, and found it was
    His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.
    “Unless you leave this house,” he said,
    “I’ll send for the Police!”

    He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
    That questioned him in Greek:
    He looked again, and found it was
    The Middle of Next Week.
    “The one thing I regret,” he said,
    “Is that it cannot speak!”

    He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
    Descending from the bus:
    He looked again, and found it was
    A Hippopotamus
    “If this should stay to dine,” he said,
    “There won’t be much for us!”

    He thought he saw a Kangaroo
    That worked a coffee-mill:
    He looked again, and found it was
    A Vegetable-Pill.
    “Were I to swallow this,” he said,
    “I should be very ill!”

    He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
    That stood beside his bed:
    He looked again, and found it was
    A Bear without a Head.
    “Poor thing,” he said, “poor silly thing!
    It’s waiting to be fed!”

    He thought he saw an Albatross
    That fluttered round the lamp:
    He looked again, and found it was
    A Penny-Postage-Stamp.
    “You’d best be getting home,” he said:
    “The nights are very damp!”

    He thought he saw a Garden-Door
    That opened with a key:
    He looked again, and found it was
    A double Rule of Three:
    “And all its mystery,” he said,
    “Is clear as day to me!”

    He thought he saw an Argument
    That proved he was the Pope
    He looked again, and found it was
    A Bar of Mottled Soap.
    “A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
    “Extinguishes all hope!”

  2. That’s a lovely song! If you don’t find your CD, you can still listen to it here.

    I didn’t know Mervyn Peake wrote poetry; I just knew him from the Gormenghast books. I like that poem.

    My favorite of this genre (assuming it’s part of it) is probably Tom O’Bedlam, particularly the last stanza:

    With an host of furious fancies
    Whereof I am commander,
    With a burning spear and a horse of air,
    To the wilderness I wander.
    By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
    I summoned am to a tourney
    Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end
    Methinks it is no journey.

    The complete poem with some nice commentary on the allusions is here.

  3. When I think of nonsense poems, The Owl and the Pussycat Still comes to mind for me, from when I was very small. I love that runcible spoon didnt mean anything then, but now it does.

  4. Peter, I loved the Owl and the Pussycat too! My family had a gorgeous illustrated version, and I still frequently quote it.

    Also, from Hilaire Belloc, “The Yak”:

    As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
    You will find it exactly the thing:
    It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
    Or lead it about with a string.

    The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
    (A desolate region of snow)
    Has for centuries made it a nursery pet,
    And surely the Tartar should know!

    Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
    And if he is awfully rich
    He will buy you the creature—or else he will not.
    (I cannot be positive which.)

  5. Allan Shampine

    I do subscribe to multiple paywalls, but I also do Patreons and subscriptions where I could get the content for free. In the latter cases, I want to support the content creators for fear that if I do not, the content will go away. For the former, where I can’t get the content for free, I would probably pay even if I could, but it is worth it to me to get access to the materials (e.g., New York Times).

  6. I have been meaning to look at Patreons and subscribe to some. I made a firm decision to figure out how to do that this spring. And then poof! Suddenly very circumstribed internet access and way too much to do, so I still haven’t gotten to it. I’m far more willing in principal to subscribe to Patreons than pay for the NYT or the WSJ or anything of that kind.

    So far I have confirmed two different ways that I definitely cannot get internet access at my house. I really, really do not want a satellite dish. I do not. But I may be forced to look at that option. Maybe I can look into it but not commit to doing it for just a few more weeks…

    I do love Tom O’Bedlam, though I’m not entirely sure it belongs in the “nonsense poetry” subgenre.

    I’ve never heard of The Mad Gardener’s Song, but it’s great.

  7. I have a recommendation, it might not be nonsense in the usual use of the word, but in my opinion, it has more in common with Carroll then with many of the songs cited here:
    “Thro’ the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber,
    Past the wan-moon’d abysses of night,
    I have liv’d o’er my lives without number,
    I have sounded all things with my sight;
    And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.

    “I have haunted the tombs of the ages,
    I have flown on the pinions of fear
    Where the smoke-belching Erebus rages,
    Where the jokulls loom snow-clad and drear:
    And in realms where the sun of the desert consumes what it never can cheer.”

    H. P. Lovecraft’s Nemesis.

    Incidentally, for those who’ve wondered about the Jabberwock “Whiffling”, it is a zigzag, gusting motion as of the wind. This dates back two centuries before the poem that popularized it was written.

  8. I don’t normally look at Lovecraft, but actually paying attention to what the poem says is happening is rather non-sensical, isn’t it.

    I’ve always liked Lear’s Jumblies poem, too. Far and free, far and free are the lands where the Jumblies live, their heads are green, and their hands are blue and they went to sea in a sieve.

    And for non-poem nonsense, I can’t think of any who do it better than Thurber – not even Lewis Carroll.

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